by Elena Suglia
Kenji O’Brien always knew he wanted to teach. Since graduating from Brown in 2009 with a Sc.B. in Human Biology, he has immersed himself in experiences to increase his understanding of what it means to help people learn.
Helping people learn, rather than “teaching them,” is a better way to look at education, Kenji believes.
After leaving Brown, Kenji spent eight months teaching English classes in a rural Chilean town. For many people there, he was the first American they had ever met, although in a twist of irony his partner who co-taught English with him was named “America,” even though “She didn’t really speak English. She was a French teacher.”
Kenji’s passion for education only grew while he was in Chile, and he applied and was accepted into the Stanford graduate program in education, which was an especially good fit for him because Stanford’s program “places a big value on the cutting edge of research,” by grounding theory and pedagogy in personal experiences.
In 2010, Kenji completed his Masters in education at Stanford and joined a student-teaching charter management organization in Northern California called “Summit Public Schools” (SPS) consisting of six schools, one of which Kenji helped found at Tahoma.
Like a handful of other charter schools around the nation, SPS opens schools with just one grade, and adds a grade each year. Since its inception in 2004, Summit Public Schools have increased their faculty from five per school to 16 currently, with a growth to 22 slated for next year. The organization’s leaders believe that steady growth allows a school to start on a strong foot and build from a sturdy foundation.
Compared to teachers at traditional schools, SPS faculty members emphasize habits of success and cognitive skills versus spending 90% of their time and effort on teaching and reinforcing content, said Kenji. “There is no fixed knowledge, he said, which fits his own personal dogma that teachers would be more effective as coaches, should emphasize skill development such as time management and perseverance, and should encourage students to develop their own passions.
“The students own their own education. They are self-directed learners,” explains Kenji. “The environment of ‘teaching’ doesn’t reflect the real world environment. Kenji aims to help his students “to be resourceful enough to seek out what they need to gain the skills to navigate and be adaptive to a constantly changing job market, and to build habits to be successful.”
We are training students to be resourceful enough to seek out what they need, to gain the skills to navigate and be adaptive to a constantly changing job market, and to build habits to be successful.” As Kenji puts it, “faculty members are more effective and professional as life coaches than as content-delivery machines.” Kenji believes that “All kids want to learn,” but only if they are given the tools and freedom to direct their own learning experience, and only if they are given adequate guidance and support to feel their own progress and success.
“Feelings of success and confidence breeds success,” he said. SPS have no traditional end-time of the school year, allowing students to spend the time they feel they need to master a particular subject area. Students don’t graduate until they finish all the pieces. “Kids shut down because they feel like they’re failing. Time is fixed, but learning is variable.” For example, Kenji’s students can access online playlists at any time and in any place to further learning.
Meanwhile, in the classroom, teachers run multi-month classes designed to hone writing, reading, and oral communication skills. Classes are grounded in projects that allow students to apply and practice these skills. This type of learning style is preferable to the “inch-deep, mile-wide hodgepodge of material across the curriculum” that is usually taught in K-12 schools across the country.
Kenji says his experiences at Brown, such as working as a Teaching Assistant and doing education outreach through the Swearer Center, have “have helped inform why I’m a teacher and translate into why my school is the way it is.”
Kenji emphasizes that SPS intentionally targets a heterogeneous group of students from all walks of life. That way, kids are put in the mix: not just stuck in impoverished or affluent areas surrounded by people just like them. All students take the same classes: there is no “high track” or “low track.”
“Fundamentally, it boils down to relationships.” Relationships are a crucial part of all that the students do. Each teacher has 18 students, and they teach and follow these students from the moment they arrive at school until the moment they graduate. “We are the people that make sure the students don’t fall through the cracks. We are life coaches and learning coaches, fostering relationships and helping students maintain those relationships. That is one piece of the program that will never change.”
Such an optimized, blended learning environment is “not a silver bullet. We are not solving education inequality.” Still, Kenji’s end goal is to see all 50 million US public school students personalize their education and succeed in life someday.
And, he is helping to shape that educational landscape, one student at a time.